Nina Bulgakova is a Ukrainian choreographer, dancer, and the director of dance company – Ethno Contemporary Ballet. She graduated from Kharkiv Academy of Culture in 2008 and is a certified yoga instructor. She left Ukraine soon after the war started and, after a brief period in the Czech Republic, now resides in Finland. Nina recently worked with TaikaBox to create and perform the Ukrainian language version of Born Old.

Nina Bulgakova in the rehearsal room. She grips her shoulders with her face raised upwards, eyes closed.

First tell me something about Ethno Contemporary Ballet.

The word ballet is used to express dancing, it doesn’t mean ballet in the sense of the classical. Ethno, for me, means something connected with our roots, our traditions, not only Ukrainian but global, that has inspired us – myths, legends, fairy tales, stories. Things that our grandparents told us about nature or how they used to live. We are also inspired by religion, in the large meaning of the word. We are not just about Ukrainian legends, it’s more about the whole world.

A monochromatic photo of three women - all with long hair - lying on the edge of a concrete platform, their hands covering their faces. The special thing about this photo is that the image has been rotated 180 degrees so that their hair flows upwards.
Ethno Contemporary Ballet photographed by Anna Semenova

Things have changed for you a lot because of the war. Would you like to say something about it?

I’m not really comfortable talking about the war in English. I could say something in Ukrainian, but I would have to think about it first.

How is life treating you right now?

I’m busy, trying to survive in a new country. For me it’s not my home, of course – it seems like my second home, but…

Should we talk about the psychological effect of physical exercise? 

Yeah, yeah. Usually it helps in… I see it every day – today I’ve had an unusual day. I’ve been sitting with the laptop almost all day, we’ve been creating our website with the girls, applying for some grants and sending emails. And I realized that I don’t like sitting. I like so much more moving. So yeah. I think that, in my profession, my lifestyle helps me to go through heavy things, like some struggling. 

But… I’m 38 years old now, and I realise that I have to do special practice more often, especially for my back – if I don’t do it, I will feel bad. I think it’s something you have to think about. Dancing is a physical art. Almost all my day I concentrate on my body – eating schedules, stretching, flexing. For me it is not difficult, I like it very much. For me this is something that is a huge part of my life – I am a dancer.

A woman in a long skirt is performing on stage. The floor is covered in some kind of grains - maybe sand or wheat. She holds a rope above her head, which trails out behind her. Tied firmly to the end of the rope is a heavy boulder - about head size - that sits on the grains strewn across the floor. The lighting is richly golden, like warm sunlight.
Nina in the ECB show Fertility. Photo: Leo Ollikainen

Is the Finnish dance scene different from the Ukrainian?

There are good things in both the Ukrainian and Finnish sectors, when we cooperate something new could be born. That’s why I like multicultural cooperation, to create together, to share ideas between each other. The differences between how we live, other education systems and political systems, these differences bring out more in cooperation than the sum of its parts. Finnish dance culture is different to Ukraine, there is much more support for dance culture in Finland than in Ukraine. There are a lot of talented artists in Ukraine though, but even before the war it wasn’t easy to do things. But art and culture are basic things that define their makers. 

How do you feel about this aging and limitations of your own physique?

Uh, actually I have mixed feelings when I see adult performers on the stage. I am inspired by them, I see that they are energetic and physically fit and healthy. But at the same time my body is not as strong as it was when I was 20. I should change something in my training days and my routine, and maybe choreography. That could help me continue to dance, not only creating, but also to be on the stage.

How important is it, being on stage? It sounds like it’s a really big part of your life.

Yeah, it’s really important to me, because I had a big break [from performing] when my daughter was small. So I haven’t danced in… I actually started to be like a real dancer, for me, only at 35. Before that I was a teacher, then I was a mother, then I was a wife and only three years ago, I became a dancer.

Of course, I have participated in some short projects when I was a student, but it’s not like today, not like now, when I can show something big and participate in the performance – that is interesting to me. Not only a small piece like a school project, not only for entertaining the audience, but showing something deep. Not only to dance, but also to act [as an actress].

Three women are performing on stage. The scene is dark. One carries a bundle that resembles a baby. She appears to be screaming. The other two are placing their hands around her face, fingers splayed, and the effect seems to amplify her emotions.
Ethno Contemporary Ballet – Say It Quieter If you Can. Photo: Igor Korotich

Can you describe what dance is to you? Is it art, a way to express yourself, a language on its own or something else – or all of that?

A conversation between me and the universe. I feel that it’s something that I need to do, that I should do, I have to do so. I remember that I have liked to dance since I was a child and it’s a very huge part of my life.

Like second nature.

Oh, probably. I hope so, I don’t know. I don’t know how it looks, but for me it’s really important to express myself through the movements, through the creations. It’s very difficult to explain in English, but my view, the meanings… Usually people talk about something to write or such, but I prefer body language. It’s almost the same, just without words.

You’re also a yoga instructor. How do these mix when you design a dance choreography? Do you use yoga postures, the tempo in the piece itself, or is it just something to clear your mind and warm up?

Basically it’s more for the body than for creation, but I think it inspired me to find something. Because it’s not only about physical things, it’s also like a philosophy: that we are one with nature, that we need to be together, and we need our thought and our body [for that]. But I don’t usually use it for my creations. it’s more for the body. But I think yoga is also an important part of my life. 

Nina is on stage, pouring some kind of grains over her back from a large bowl. The scene is quite dark, lit only by a spotlight from above. This gives it a mysterious quality and emphasises the muscular quality of her bare back and arms.
Photo by Leo Ollikainen

You are currently looking for a composer for human voice, a choir if I understood correctly. Can you tell us anything about this upcoming project?

The working title is “Women and the Sea”. It’s going to be about women who probably are mermaids, but it shouldn’t be a fairytale, it should be like some mystic story. That’s why I would like to use sounds like little stones. Mermaids can’t speak – I remember this cartoon about a mermaid who changed her voice for human legs, and so my mermaid can’t speak or sing. So the main idea is that the dancers want to say something but can’t. Maybe at the same time, we are women, so we wait for our sailor husbands, we live near the sea, waiting for them, living our boring lives, or fishing from the beach. I would like to use rubber fish as props, and a boombox, and dance with rubber boots on to make the right noise.

Nina dances on stage with a broom. This broom looks like an old-fashioned, traditional broom made of bound straw. She seems to be sweeping, but with exaggerated gestures, her head thrown back and the broom tentatively held in her fingertips as if it has a life of its own.
Photo by Igor Korotich

You also mentioned earlier that you would like to teach again, that it gives you new energy and new inspiration, also for your own choreographies. What kind of teacher would you be?

I think I probably would like to teach how to dance in a more interesting, a more free way. To dance more naturally, but at the same to connect acting and dancing, how to find your own style. It’s time for interesting faces, interesting dancers. We shouldn’t be like these ballet dancers, for example, like in Swan Lake. They are all the same swans, blah blah blah. I think the audience would like to see different people, they would like to find out themselves somehow in some performances. But it’s not so easy to be honest when you dance, when you’re acting. Probably I would like to teach how to create something on the stage and to be honest with the audience. Some teachers are very good at explaining, some are good at showing. But I like moving, and that’s why I would like to show and explain, so I would have to make a good example.

When I’m teaching, the students should find this balance between results and health, as a dancer needs to be flexible and strong, to have enough energy. Freelance dancers can find it hard to be resilient if you don’t have an everyday routine. Freelancers should have their own routine, as institution-based dancers usually do. But I can say I prefer performing to teaching, though.

Nina Bulgakova was chatting online with Pasi Pirttiaho

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